Tuesday, 25 October 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 1)

This was my first full day in Korea. I spent most of the day in Suwon, the provincial capital of Gyeonggi, which literally means "the capital area". During the rush hour, I joined thousands of "Seoulers" on the underground system to travel to Suwon, which took about an hour.

It was a bright sunny day - much warmer than I expected and I was sweating in my long-sleeve T-shirt. I bought a ticket to the Korean Folk Village - sadly, the coupon printed out from www.tour2korea.com was not accepted - from the Suwon Tourist Information Centre and jumped on to the free shuttle bus in the carpark next to the office.

The ride took about 30 minutes and I was brought to the entrance of the Folk Village a few minutes past 11 am. Then I spent less than three hours wandering around the Folk Village, as if I was brought back to the countryside of Joseon Dynasty. It was interesting and informative.

Just a few minutes after I started the walk, Sun-mi called me on the mobile to see if I'm doing fine. I'm most grateful to Sun-mi for her help and hospitality. On the first day of my arrival in Seoul, she treated me to a delicious dinner of "bulgogi", which means beef hotpot with vegetables, in Insadong, and showed me around downtown to Cheonggyecheon, the newly restored river in the middle of downtown, and Myeongdong, the shopping hub like Causeway Bay. We had a good chat about work, about culture, about films and stars, before we went home at about 10 pm on Monday.

Although Sun-mi was very impressed about how much I know about Hangeul and the Korean pronunciation of names of places, as well as history of Korea, she couldn't help worrying that someone who doesn't speak Korean would do well. I told her so far I was doing good. Speaking English does not seem to be a problem, although a bit patience is needed if you come across someone who doesn't understand English and he/she would ask friends and colleagues for help. Other than that it was perfectly fine.

Obviously it was a good day for school picnics and there were hundreds of primary students, led by teachers, scattering around screaming and laughing in the Folk Village. To my own surprise, I was by no means annoyed or upset seeing them, which normally happens in Hong Kong. Again, I found myself much more tolerant and considerate when away from home, perhaps due to a conscious perception of distance.

After visiting the Folk Village, I caught a No. 37 bus back to Suwon Station. I didn't bother to wait for the free shuttle bus, which wouldn't operate until 2 pm. Then I went to the Tourist Information Centre again for transport information to Hwaseong Haenggung. There I met Mr Kim Si-uk, who speaks good English and a bit Cantonese and Mandarin. He showed me in great detail not only how to get to Hwaseong Haenggung but also Hwaseong Fortress, which has been enlisted as an UNESCO World Heritage. He also gave me a book on Hwaseong as a gift, and taught me a Korean phrase, "Cheon neun Hong Kong saram imnida", which literally means "I am a Hong Konger". He said I look no different from any other Korean on the streets and would most likely come across someone who would like me to show him/her the direction. And he was right. On my way uphill to Hwaseong Fortress, I came across a middle-age woman who asked me something that I didn't understand. I replied, "Mianhamnida, Hong Kong saram imnida," and she showed understanding. Actually another woman on my way from the Folk Village to Suwon also asked me something, but I didn't know the phrase to reply.

A 15-minute bus ride took me to Hwaseong Haenggung, first built by King Jeongjo of Joseon but only lately restored. He was born to Hyegyeonggung Madame Hong, the poor lady whose husband Crown Prince Sado was starved to death at the age of 28, leaving behind him a beautiful and kind-hearted wife and at least five children. I couldn't help getting a bit excited knowing this when I recalled that Rina has played the role of Madame Hong in Road to Kingship in 1998.

During my 40-minute visit to Hwaseong Haenggung, it came to my knowledge that this was also one of the major sets of Dae Jang-geum! How surprising! After that I walked up the hill behind Hwaseong Haenggung and started the two-hour walk along Hwaseong Fortress. I finished only half of the 5.7-kilometre fortress wall in slightly less than two hours but have covered the most important part of it. Surprisingly, I was not hungry at all and missed lunch. Before I set off I only took a chocolate bar that enabled me to carry on with the strenuous walk.

When I came down from the Hwaseong Fortress at Hwahongmun, it was already 6 pm. Then I walked 20 minutes to reach Paldalmun before I caught a No. 11 bus to go back to Suwon Station. I managed to buy a copy of Dae Jang-geum Highlights and Mapado, the hilarious comedy starred by "Madame Jang" Yeo Un-ge and four other old ladies. I had a great dinner of pasta at a fusion restaurant before taking the subway back to Seoul. It was a pity that I have missed "galbi", roast beef ribs that was the landmark dish of Suwon, but I simply couldn't find a decent restaurant selling "galbi" near Suwon Station. It was kind of weird...

It was such a rewarding and yet tiring day that I decided not to drive myself too hard tomorrow. Sun-mi showed me some decent tea houses and coffee shops in Insadong and I should try to relax myself with a cup of tea or coffee and a book some time.

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